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How religion has been used to promote slavery
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, but he and other religious giants accepted slavery for others, scholars say.
March 29th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

How religion has been used to promote slavery

By John Blake, CNN

Editor’s note: The CNN documentary 'Slavery's Last Stronghold' airs on CNN International TV March 29, 30, 31 and April 22. Check local listings for times.

(CNN) - Which revered religious figure - Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad - spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?

Answer: None of them.

One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban – slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say.

Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil. Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery.

Yet there was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely cited the words and deeds of their founders to justify human bondage, scholars say.

At times, religion was deployed more to promote the spread of slavery than to prevent it.

Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania

“The lesson in all this is we need historical humility,” says Daniel C. Peterson, author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God.” “It’s stunning for us to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did, but they did.”

But what did the founders of the three great Western religions do? Did they have slaves and did they condemn the practice? Or were they, at least on this issue, squarely men of their times?

The answers to these questions are as murky and contradictory as history itself.

What’s a slave?

Part of the problem is historical context. Most contemporary people think of slaves as people condemned to a lifetime of bondage, working on plantations and being whipped like oxen.

That kind of slavery did exist during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Many slaves were prisoners of war; concubines, gladiators, laborers in salt mines. They could be killed, raped and discarded at any moment.

Yet there were layers of slavery in the ancient world. Many slaves would be seen today as indentured servants, or people trying to pay off debts; royal bodyguards and entrepreneurs, historians say.

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Sometimes the slaves became masters. In medieval Egypt, Muslim rulers trained and educated slaves to be their bodyguards. One group of slaves grew so powerful that they overthrew the rulers of Egypt and established their own dynasty, says Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Languages and Culture at Harvard University.

“Slavery meant different things in different cultures,” Asani says. “There wasn’t always this sense of powerlessness and oppression. In certain forms, it became an access to power.”

In other forms, it became access to freedom, says John Dominic Crossan, one of world’s leading scholars on the life and times of Jesus.

That was the case in the world of Jesus. The Roman Empire was the dominant power of Jesus’ day, and it survived on the backs of millions of slaves. Yet there was only one mass slave revolt against Rome, which was led by Spartacus, a gladiatorial slave, Crossan says.

The reason there were so few massive slave rebellions against Rome was because some of its slaves had avenues for advancement, dim though they may seem to modern sensibilities.

Slaves could buy their freedom. They ran businesses for their masters or tutored their children. Greek slaves, in particular, were often valued because of their education and culture, he says.

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Roman slavery was cruel and capricious, but not all Romans saw slaves as subhuman.

“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Roman slavery,” says Crossan, author of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus,” was that the Romans ended up with a huge number of slaves who were smarter than their masters.”

The uncomfortable historical record

It’s been said that great religious figures transcend history. They rise above the peculiar customs of their day to show a new path forward.

It’s a matter of debate if Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad did that with slavery. All three seemed to either ignore or tolerate some forms of slavery, some scholars say.

The parables of Jesus, for example, were full of references to slaves. Terms like “servants” or “stewards” are what we would call slaves today. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments about slavery in his parables, Crossan says.

The subject may have been irrelevant to him or his audience, says Crossan, the Jesus scholar. Jesus didn’t own any slaves. Neither did his disciples or the crowds Jesus addressed. They were all too poor and lived under desperate economic circumstances.

“It may well be that the people he talked to were small farmers who would not have the luxury of slaves,” Crossan says. “He [Jesus] doesn’t say anything for or against it.”

Still, Crossan says that he believes that Jesus would have opposed slavery, given the nature of his teachings. Scholars aren’t so certain about Jesus’ most influential disciple, the Apostle Paul.

The man whose writings make up most of the New Testament had to deal with slavery. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many slaves joined the church.

At various parts of the New Testament, Paul seems to accept slavery. He tells slaves to obey their masters. At other times, Paul seems to challenge the morality of slavery. In one New Testament letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of a runaway slave and chides the master for calling himself a Christian and holding a slave.

Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome.

“It’s one thing to say that Jesus is Lord,” Crossan says. “Now if you’re saying a Christian can’t have slaves, then something must be wrong with slaves. So now you’re attacking the Roman system, which is a slave economy.”

Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say.

American Christians who owned slaves had a simple but powerful defense in the run-up to the Civil War. The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and, since the Bible is infallible, slavery is part of God’s order, says Mark Noll, author “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

“The defenders of slavery said Jesus condemned quite a few things that were standard in the Old Testament,” Noll says. “He condemned polygamy, violence, easy divorce, but he never condemned slavery.”

Let my people go, but keep the others

Neither did Moses, the founder of Judaism, say other scholars.

There’s no record of Moses owning slaves, but the Mosaic laws permitted and regulated slavery, says Peterson, the author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God” and a religious scholar at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Still, under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time that was called the year of jubilee, Peterson says.

“They were not trying to create a permanent underclass of slaves that went from parents to child and child and grandchildren,” Peterson says of the ancient Israelites.

But how could ancient Israelites sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go?”

The text is not clear on that question, says Brannon Wheeler, a religious scholar.

He says the Exodus stories suggest that the God of Israel was angry at Pharaoh not for enslaving a group of people, but for unjustly enslaving the “Chosen People” - the people God had promised to give their own homeland.

“In order to make that promise stick, He [God] has to get them out of Egypt,” says Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland.

“It’s not like He [God] says slavery is bad and I want to abolish it.”

The Prophet Mohammad never explicitly condemned slavery, and actually owned slaves, some scholars say.

Yet he recognized the humanity of slaves, teaching followers that freeing slaves was an act of piety. He allowed slaves to buy their freedom and demanded that they should be treated with love and respect, says Asani, author of  “Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry.”

“He himself did own slaves but he treated them as family,” Asani says. “One called Zayd he treated like an adopted son and one of his wives was a Coptic Christian slave.”

The followers of men like the Prophet Mohammad, though, would take a harsher attitude toward slaves.

By the time of the crusades, Christians and Muslims were enslaving one another by the thousands. They cited their faith as justification, says Robert C. Davis, author of “Holy War and Human Bondage.”

“Religion was the defining principle of slavery—this person is another faith and can be enslaved,” Davis says.

Some church leaders preached that enslaving others was an act of evangelism, Davis says.

“One pope said that the justification for slavery was that it was important for spreading the faith,” Davis says. “Once they were enslaved, they would more readily take to Christianity.”

Those kinds of actions may now seem barbaric, but the texts and stories that were used to justify slavery still exist in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Few, though, would quote those scriptures today, and many don’t even know they exist.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” says Jonathan Brockopp, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”

It happened with slavery, and, who knows, perhaps it’s happening again in our time. There may be a religious practice accepted today that future generations will look upon and ask the same question we ask about people who enslaved others in the name of God:

How could they?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church and state • Egypt • History • Islam • Islamic law • Islamic law • Israel • Jesus • Moses • Muslim • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,207 Responses)
  1. TheTruth

    Nowhere in the Bible, Old Testament or New, is slavery encouraged or justified. It does acknowledge, many times, that man does this to his fellow man – but that's not the same as supporting it.
    "The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."

    March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jon

      How about God destroyed Sodom and Gemorrah just because he felt like it, or wiped the earth killing everyone except for Noah. Of course the Bible mentions slavery. The men in those days would sell their wives and daughters and held slaves. It was just commonplace. If you ignore the holy garbage of the bible and analyze it as a normal book, it's quite expected for slavery to be in there.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Really? So the following does not say anything about slavery? Your comment proves how many christians do nto actually read their buybull.
      "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.' If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever." (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)
      "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment." (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
      "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ." (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
      "When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property." (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

      March 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jim

      it is very much in there–this is the unerring word of an infinte God... all knowing throughout time and space. If He lists slavery as ana cceptable practice in his single holy tomb, then it must be acceptable thoughout time and space. God's "snapshot of reality" is a bit broader then ours. If you say the book has slavery in it "because of the times" you are limiting the vision of God to a human perspective... If that's all "God" has... what does it really mean to be a god?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • rickwh

      And the bigger fool says in his heart "yes, I believe in fairy tales"

      March 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Get Real

      TheTruth, ""The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."

      A quite old and sometimes effective tactic – declaring that those who do not believe your story are 'fools'. Nobody wants to be considered 'dumb' for not seeing the Emperor's new clothes, or a 'bas.tard' for not seeing the Sultan's new turban, or a 'cuckold' for not being able to see the Miller's gold thumb.

      Even Joseph Smith used it when he gathered his 'witnesses' to his golden plates. He told them that only those with 'true faith' would be able to 'see' them.

      The ancient, primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Rob

    Comparing slavery to religion is such bull crap. Don't blame the actual people just blame an idea. Blaming a thought oh yeah real tough. It's like you people that think we shouldn't have guns. People are still going to find ways to kill one another. We invented religion and we invented the gun. The knife and we figured that if you hold someone under water long enough they will die.
    Pathetic.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • colleenkelley

      Why does it not surprise me that someone defending religion jumps to the subject of guns at the first chance he gets?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  3. Kyle

    Cnn pushing anti -1st amendment agenda, time to take to the streets religious folks or these commies will have their way.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • sleepytime

      Is what way is this article "pushing an anti- first amendment agenda"?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Thomas

      First Amendment only applies to goverment. A private website like CNN.com can always control content

      March 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Alyssa

      The first amendment does not provide religions with immunity from historical criticism.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  4. Phil Ologus

    This is SUCH old information. Many books have been written on this subject over the oast 100 years. Got any new news or info? Here's some: Many splinter Chirstian cults predicted the world would end in 1844! Seriously... why re-hash what has already been re-re-re-re-re-hashed?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  5. Elijah Abel

    How ironic for a BYU professor to talk about historical humility as a member of a Church that has not expressed remorse for its own racist past.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Phil Ologus

      Agree! And... why is a BYU professor pointing out ANY historical issue's accuracy when there are subjects like "reformed hieroglyphics" which defy any connection to history. LOL!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jim

      Argumentum ad hominem?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  6. Jim

    Right here in the blogs the Christians and other religious people are making excuses for the justification of human bondage. Jesus is part of the trinity, thus he had perfect infinite knowledge–which means He KNEW where slavery would take humanity (i.e., colonial slave trade) and yet he said nothing to change it's course. And his adherents used "The Good Book" to enslave millions. God knows that there is evil slavery in the cosmos throughout time and knows His Son could simply, with a simple parable, make it all unjustified and go away, but does nothing. Maybe God really is an old white guy in the sky?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Phil Ologus

      AND... His (i.e.: Jesus) adherents used "The Good Book" to end the enslaving of millions.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Jim

      Nope–people who disregarded what the good book said about it did. Remember, Jesus had infinite vision–there was no economic reason for slavery to exist in the American colonies other than to make tobacco and cotton cheap. Your "Jesus" could have given us a simple parable 2,000 years ago and it never would have happened. But Jesus accepted slavery, Paul told slaves to be obedient, etc. When influential fail to speak out against evil and tyranny, they condone it with their silence. God is a slightly influential "person"... or at least, whoever controls the word of god in the minds of the minions.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  7. nyc lawyer

    religion didn't promote slavery, man did. religion isnt created by god, it is created by human beings to manifest the "words of god" but at the end of a day, a man or woman in a room wrote down these "words". religion didn't just "justify slavery" it justified everything from genocide to war to oppression to imperialism. man justified slavery. men and women and its not a white/black thing only, all over the world slavery has existed from china to india to africa to middle east. my major problem is that it tries to make this amorphous thing called "religion" at blame. point the finger at the real culprit. mankind. thank you. lunch time.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  8. big brother

    Oh really, like religions was "used" to justify slavery. What a crock of bullcrap! Religion should be banned for what it is, a LIE.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Phil Ologus

      and yet it was this 'religion' which led to the end of slavery.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Jim

      More small thinking... slavery hasn't ended. And religion did not end slavery. Men who disregarded it did.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Thomas

      Where do you get that religion ended slavery? Slavery ended because people, regardless of religion, decided it was wrong.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  9. mcb

    So has atheism and every other ism/anity we've ever had. Common denominator = man...

    March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  10. Dave

    Religion was a tool for powerful men to enslave others. Now, on top of religion's stain throughout history and the rest of the world, it has become money and corporate influence doing the very same things.

    Evil, powerful men use slavery. It isn't necessarily religion's fault. If anyone is to blame it should be regular good human beings who did nothing or enabled evil men in their deeds. History has plenty of examples of those types, too.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Jon

      Religion isn't a evil rich person's doing. It's a way to keep the masses from being scared of their miserable lives. People can't face reality and accept the world so they look for a higher presence which doesn't exist and has never existed.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  11. JYounce

    The trillion-dollar question: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Here's a quick test. Have you ever told a lie, stolen anything, or used God's name in vain? Jesus said, "Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Have you looked with lust? Will you be guilty on Judgment Day? If you have done those things, God sees you as a lying, thieving, blasphemous adulterer at heart. The Bible warns that if you are guilty you will end up in Hell. God, who the Bible says is "rich in mercy" sent His Son to suffer and die on the cross for guilty sinners. We broke God's Law, but Jesus paid our fine. That means He can legally dismiss our case. He can commute our death sentence: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Then He rose from the dead and defeated death. Please, repent (turn from sin) today and God will grant everlasting life to all who trust in Jesus. Then read your Bible daily and obey it.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Miss Anthrope

      Wow... channel Ray Comfort much.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Jim

      Sorry, mass murder is acceptable as long as, after, you accept Jesus into your heart and ask his forgiveness. Why do you think monarchies were so enamoured with it as a religion? Christianity is a free pass to sin.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • sailr69

      remember: god did not invent religion!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • colleenkelley

      Oh, stop.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  12. slave to sin?

    God made rules because of the capacity of the people. He allowed divorce because of the Jews' "hardness of hearts" despite that He hated divorce. Besides as said this was voluntary, freed after 7 years. Thanks and praise to the loving God of all mankind.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Jim

      God is not just of mankind, that's some seroius "small ball" thinking. And God exists throughout infinite time and dimensionality. God knows (presenet tense) what is (present tense) at all times (past and future) infinitely. His "predicitve power" from our persoective is infinite. Thus, He knows there is great evil being perpetrated in His name, and His son does nothing to stop it... but He talks about divorce? Really? As comparative evils go, divorce is a bit parochial... men.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • sailr69

      god speaks to this guy!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  13. ryan

    pffttt. religion! lol

    March 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  14. Peikovianyi

    NYC schools are crawling around while dragging a full load. Call their mom.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  15. Frustrated

    Everyone saying "Christians and religious people are bad because their books don't oppose slavery." are idiotic.
    1. I am a Christian. The Bible is written for me. Outside of the 4 Gospels, the New Testament is written for Jewish Christians and Gentiles (Christians who aren't Jewish). It is written for those within the practice. So, treat your servant with respect is written to those Christians, not to the general populous because it is understood that the world lives differently than Christians. They didn't say in the NT that they should be buying up women and men and then beating them because they can and Old Testament times vs New Testament times were very different.
    2. Slavery existed outside of religion. That is where it started. It wasn't religious folks who thought "Well, I can own people and so I am gonna start this new idea. Let's make people do my work and beat them." The culture was slavery/servant hood. Stop thinking that religious people were the only ones who had servants. Quite opposite it was the world that did.
    3. I don't have a 3. but you can't make a list with only two...

    March 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Phil Ologus

      Good logic. However... you will continue to be "Frustrated" if you think logic is a persuasive tool here. It should be. But it's not. This is a place where ideology and preconceived notions (and often mis-notions) trump logic. :-\

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Alicia

      Totally agreed!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  16. Sir Ivanhoe

    One can learn a lot more about the Middle East and the Abrahamic religions in the international novel - king of Bat'ha - and the sequel -- Tales from the East: Return of Ivanhoe - this latter is due out by summer 2012

    March 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  17. Mike from CT

    Reality must be wetting himself today as Crossan was the person they went to on the subject

    For a more complete view I would offer
    http://www.thevillagechurch.net/media/sermons/transcripts/201008011700FMWC21ASAAA_MattChandler_ColossiansPt17-SlaveryAndTheSkeptic.pdf

    http://www.thevillagechurch.net/sermon/does-the-bible-condone-slavery/

    or the audio
    http://media.thevillagechurch.net/sermons/audio/201008011700FMWC21ASAAA_MattChandler_ColossiansPt17-SlaveryAndTheSkeptic.mp3&mediaBID=1129808

    March 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  18. kreamowheat

    Everyone is a slave to something at some time. What the liberal history books leave out is that nearly 80% of free blacks before the civil war owned slaves, yet its always pitted black vs. white. The percentage of whites that owned slaves was about 9%. Funny...

    March 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Carrier

      But did they own white slaves?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • sailr69

      is this a bunch of crap or what?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Thomas

      No they did not own white slaves. There was a law passed in the late 1600's that prohibited blacks from owning white slaves.
      Whites could own white slaves
      Blacks could own Black slaves
      and of course whites could own Black slaves
      But Blacks could not own white slaves after this law was passed

      March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Alyssa

      I highly doubt your 80%/9% number, but there were also many state laws that provided that slaves who were freed had to leave the state within a certain period of time after becoming free. Free blacks then bought their relatives in order to keep them near.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  19. Peikovianyi

    Reality is what it is, human consciousness can understand enough of reality to survive, man's reason is his basic weapon, man's ethics is the use of reason to promote his own survival. Ethics is universal. That which promotes man's reason is good, that which demotes man's reason is evil. Whole societies and governments can be judged evil. The religious texts of mankind belong to a distant period of history and they can also be judged.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • U so crazy

      Ethics do not support the survival of the indevidual and go against the basic priciples of evolutionary biology.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  20. voice.of.reason

    slave of those times is an employee of today... there is a bit more man power, so you don't have to round them up and well, the conditions have gotten a little better, that's all.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.